Words must be followed by action, Manitoba survivors and academics say after Pope’s apology to Indigenous delegates

Indigenous people and academics in Manitoba are weighing in on the historic apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.

Many see it as a significant step on the path to reconciliation but they stress there’s still more work to do to help people heal from generations of trauma and suffering.

At her home in Winnipeg, residential school survivor Jennifer Wood reflected on the long-awaited apology.

“When I first heard this morning the words from the Pope I was very relieved,” said Wood, who serves as the commemoration and community engagement liaison officer for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. “I almost let out a big breath because it would’ve really hurt if the apology didn’t happen.”

It happened on Friday after delegations from Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities each met privately at the Vatican with Pope Francis over the past week.

They shared stories with the pontiff of the harms done by the government-sponsored, church-run schools.

“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said. “And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops in asking your pardon.”

The Pope said he felt sorrow and shame for the deplorable conduct of some members of the Catholic Church—particularly those with educational responsibility—and for the abuses suffered and lack of respect shown to the culture and identity of Indigenous people.

His words resonated with Murray Sinclair, who served as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined and informed Canadians on what happened in residential schools by documenting the stories of survivors, families and communities.

“I think probably one of the most important aspects of his statement that were made was an acknowledgment that the very teachings of the church led to the church acting as it did,” Murray Sinclair said.

From the late 1800s until the last school closed in 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were torn from their families and forced to attend residential schools. They were robbed of their language and culture through what the pope acknowledged was “based on the notion that progress occurs through ideological colonization.”

Niigaan Sinclair, a professor in the department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, described the apology as a significant step but he said that doesn’t mean it was easy for Indigenous people to hear.

“It is the Catholic Church that did the most harm to both of those things: our experiences between our Elders and our children and the second is our experiences with our own language, culture, history, identity,” Niigaan Sinclair said. “And so for the Pope to say these things are valuable, on one level I can appreciate the sentiment but it’s very angering and I was very triggered by that.”

He said the apology must be followed change.

“We needed the head of the church to signal this was important,” Niigaan Sinclair said. “It’s a good sign in a good direction when the pope signals that this has to happen and the question will be what are the actions that are next because if there are no actions all of this is simply a waste of time.”

He said that means the church must compensate survivors, release records, return artifacts and work to prevent the systemic problems in the church that have allowed physical and sexual abuse to happen.

Emotional and physical abuses and at least 4,100 deaths have been documented at residential schools and more recently the discovery of unmarked graves has put pressure on the church to apologize.

Outside the Vatican, song and dance broke out in St. Peter’s Square after the papal apology.

“I didn’t think he would say I’m sorry,” said Phil Fontaine, a member of Sagkeeng First Nation and the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was among the official delegates to meet with the Pope.

“I didn’t think I would hear him say how he felt shame and guilt for what the church did to our people.”

The Pope also committed to visit Canada, where an apology on Canadian soil would fulfill one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action.

“We gotta know that things are happening in steps and we gotta realize that this is an ongoing process,” said Wood.

Survivors said the apology must be followed by action to help intergenerational survivors of the residential school system.

For Wood that action includes addressing suicide rates, high costs of living, as well as health and housing issues.

No firm details have been provided on the details of the pope’s visit, however, the Pope himself said he won’t come in winter.  

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